It’s a rainy Friday afternoon at the east edge of Portland’s Burnside Bridge, where commuter traffic is inching from downtown across the Willamette River. But five floors above at the spa inside the new Yard apartment tower, bathers in a warm soaking pool look through floor-to-ceiling glass walls at the clogged bridge and a panoramic view of the downtown Portland skyline.
The 21-story Yard and the adjacent new Slate and Fair-Haired Dumbbell buildings that comprise this Burnside Bridgehead development indicate that the high-density expansion over the past two decades of Portland’s central city has leaped across the river. There are measures of success, like Yard’s recent sale to a Thai company for $126 million. But there’s also a noticeable public hostility: To many, Burnside Bridgehead represents an act of gentrification in a city quickly losing its affordability.
Overcoming the Infrastructure
Portland is growing faster than almost any American metropolis, projected to add 725,000 residents over the next 20 years. Yet because of Oregon’s unique land-use laws limiting sprawl, the Rose City has long pursued increased density, with progressively taller buildings in new downtown-adjacent districts like the Pearl District and South Waterfront and along major neighborhood thoroughfares. But today, those places are nearly built out. Where will the rest of the growth happen?
The east side was always an obvious answer, but the Interstate 5 freeway occupies most of its riverbanks, including a concrete overpass that’s tall as an ancient Roman aqueduct. That’s part of what makes Yard’s view over the freeway so compelling: it’s a view that has hardly ever existed. Though replacement or diversion of the freeway has been studied in years past (either with a tunnel or simply pushing traffic onto I-405 downtown), no steps have been taken. Portland has redeveloped nearby industrial stretches via transit, like the Tilikum Crossing Bridge, America’s first multi-modal span that doesn’t allow private automobiles. Built in 2015, it has since jumpstarted development in the adjacent South Waterfront district. Gathering the political and financial will to remove the highly used I-5 overpass, however, has proven more challenging.
“I think Seattle is a step ahead of Portland right now in terms of removing their highway along the waterfront,” says Phoenix architect Will Bruder, author of 2009’s Burnside Bridgehead Framework Plan, referring to Seattle’s replacing its waterfront Alaskan Way Viaduct with a tunnel. “Or think about the Big Dig in Boston. If those are our models, you can quickly see how they enhance urban life.”
If Portland’s east-bank overpass is a lingering reminder how this walkable city also has a Robert Moses-influenced past (the famed New York transit guru served as a consultant to Portland’s leaders in 1940s), it has helped ensure that the adjacent industrial enclave, the Central Eastside, remains a place of warehouses, freight trains, and no residences. But Burnside Bridgehead and a planned development at the district’s southern edge near Tilikum crossing are seen as residential bookends.
“The Central Eastside is an important jobs and employment center,” explains Geraldene Moyle, a senior manager with the Portland Development Commission, the city’s development agency. “It was the only area that grew jobs during the downturn. But as employment was adjusting from industrial jobs to a blend of industrial and knowledge-based, people wanted to live close to where they work.”
Burnside Bridgehead’s underutilized stretch of blocks used to be known best for the legendary skate park underneath the bridge, which has been featured in documentaries, video games, and Gus Van Sant’s 2007 movie Paranoid Park. “It really surprised me that the site sat vacant and really was blighted for so long,” says Jeff Pickhardt of Key Development, Yard’s developer. Today, Burnside Bridgehead’s cluster of new buildings is turning heads, partly in response to the height—uncommon for the east side—and partly because of the bold architecture.
Mixing It Up
The city's cultural quirkiness (mocked on TV's Portlandia) not withstanding, Portland has a long tradition of eschewing bold architecture, and the city’s Design Commission has power to regulate the aesthetics of what gets built. It’s more important here to be pedestrian-friendly and fit in. But the striking Yard, designed by Portland’s Skylab Architecture, is impossible not to notice with its angular black-metal façade (its detractors frequently reference the Empire in Star Wars) and its sheer height. Last summer, Yard was found to have removed several upper windows after securing Design Commission approval to meet energy code strictures. The Portland Mercury soon dubbed it, “The New Apartment Building You'll Love to Hate,” not just for the switcheroo but for symbolizing the city's gentrification. The 10-story Slate, by Works Progress Architecture, has received comparatively positive reviews, its mass broken up by resembling a series of stacked boxes almost resembling shipping containers. Then there’s the Fair-Haired Dumbbell, with its loud, artist-painted façade. It’s an eclectic mix.
“There’s aspiration in these buildings,” says Kevin Cavenaugh, the Dumbbell’s developer and co-designer. “That’s why I went after this location: because there was a chance to throw a lot of talent into a tight space at the same time. So many buildings getting put up in Portland and other cities these days are not aspirational. They’re so beige-y boring.” If people have reacted harshly to Yard, Cavenaugh adds, “I think in a decade it’s going to be loved. It’s just ahead of its time on a mass and scale level.”
A decade ago, city officials imagined a big-box retail store such as Home Depot at the Burnside Bridgehead site. But the plan fizzled, reflecting local distaste for chains and large single-building developments; instead, Portland’s small 200x200-foot blocks were retained and a mix of taller—but not super-tall—buildings on modest footprints by a variety of developers and architects.
Usually the term mixed-use denotes ground floor retail and either housing or commercial space above, but Yard and Slate mix the three more liberally. Yard, for example, has publicly accessible retail going up five floors as well as two floors of offices, while Slate is a 50/50 split of commercial and residential, with a co-working space as its anchor tenant. “It was really this idea of mixing, and that’s what’s a big component of the Central Eastside,” says William Neburka, a co-founder of Works Progress Architecture, who now lives in the building. Just as the neighborhood’s warehouses have survived because of their flexibility, Slate is also designed to be adaptable, he explains: the residences can be turned into offices and vice-versa.
That mixing also creates a different sense of crossroads inside the buildings. “It’s a vertical neighborhood instead of a horizontal one,” says Fabian Andre, a former television executive now working in real estate. He sold his Northwest Portland house and moved into Yard last fall. “You feel like you’re part of a community. That’s one of the big reasons I was drawn here.”
Greenspace and Industry
Yet Burnside Bridgehead and the act of high-density placemaking there also may bring to mind what Portland’s not doing. In the 1970s, the central city was transformed by big civic moves, like removing a highway along the Willamette to build Tom McCall Waterfront Park and turning a parking lot into Pioneer Courthouse Square. In the Central Eastside, including Burnside Bridgehead, there is no such uniting public space. The city has solicited ideas for what will be called the Green Loop, but that project is a series of small interventions such as bioswales and pocket parks—no single large parcel.
“We’re losing this idea that bold ideas are relevant, and it’s a fundamental flaw,” says Don Arambula, a partner with award-winning Portland urban design firm Crandall Arambula. “The transformation of the downtown, the creation of the Pearl District: that was driven by a bold vision. For us to really grow in the next 50 years, we need to really get beyond that and think about things more than just incrementally. There needs to be something that grabs people’s imagination. That’s what’s missing.”
At the same time, highrise buildings like the apartment towers Burnside Bridgehead are not necessarily something people want for the rest of the Central Eastside even if the freeway overpass does eventually come down. And while a major park would be nice, there is an industrial energy to the district—its converted warehouse, the freight train blaring its way through every few hours—that Burnside Bridgehead seeks to harness: a place for a 21st century knowledge-based economy to grow amidst the warehouses of the past, coupled with places to live nearby, like Yard and Slate.
“This district really is desirous of creating and maintaining its own identity,” says Brad Malsin, Slate’s developer and the president of the Central Eastside Industrial Council. “Maybe that’s the Portland ethos. Even though it’s become more expensive and competitive, there’s still this sense that the price for admission for a city of comparable sophistication and opportunities is a lot less expensive than any of the other first tier cities. The Central Eastside is not one that will ever be 40-, 50-story towers. It’s about keeping that human scale and that sense of community.”
Still, when you allow a few key spots to break that scale, there’s quite a view to be had—even if you don’t have a soaking pool to look out from.